Faye Dunaway mentions in her autobiography that she screamed herself hoarse during the filming for the notorious wire hanger tantrum scene in this movie. She called Frank Sinatra for help, and he gave her some pointers on how to get her voice back into shape.
Faye Dunaway truly felt she would win an Oscar for her performance as Joan Crawford. When the film was released to poor reviews and Paramount's promotion of the film as a camp classic, Dunaway was furious. To this day, she refuses to talk about the film. In fact, when she is interviewed, she submits a list of topics that are off-limits to the interviewer, one of which is 'Mommie Dearest.' She has been known to stop interviews if asked about the film. It has been stated by the real Christina Crawford that Dunaway claimed to have been haunted by the ghost of her mother and this has provided an explanation as to why Dunaway does not like to talk about the film.
The set of the soap opera Christina performs in is the same exact set of the Cunningham home from Happy Days (1974). The kitchen is identical and the very recognizable living room can be viewed behind the actor sitting at the kitchen counter.
A month after the film was released to bad reviews, audiences flocked to see the film armed with Ajax and wire hangers to actively "participate" with the film in a manner similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Paramount seized on this new found notoriety and began to bill the film as a camp classic, with ads and posters proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!" Producer Frank Yablans was infuriated at this ad campaign.
Christina Crawford's book, on which this film was based, was one of the biggest-selling memoirs in the history of American publishing, with more than 700,000 copies sold in hardback and more 3,000,000 in paperback..
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Christina Crawford opened up about the film's famous title, saying that, "'Mommie dearest' was a term of enslavement. If we just called her 'Mother' or 'Mommy,' she corrected us over and over and over again."
According to Rutanya Alda, Faye Dunaway was despised by the crew due to her unpleasant attitude. "Joan got her way in a ladylike way. Faye was despised because she was so rude to people. Everyone was on pins and needles when she worked, and everyone relaxed when she didn't. I wish Faye had learned from Joan."
Writer of the film's source book, Christina Crawford, once said of this movie after she had seen it: "My mother didn't deserve that. (Faye Dunaway)'s performance was ludicrous. I didn't see any care for factual information. Now I've seen it, I'm sorry I did. Faye says she is being haunted by mother's ghost. After her performance, I can understand why."
Little love was lost between Costume Designer Irene Sharaff and Faye Dunaway. "Yes, you may enter Miss Dunaway's dressing room," Sharaff once said, "but first you must throw a raw steak in - to divert her attention."
The pressbook for the film goes into detail about several of the scenes, including one sequence that was cut from the film. Apparently they filmed an entire sequence where young Christina runs away from home and Joan goes out looking for her in her car. The classic cars that were necessary for the film caused a big stir in the neighborhood where the scene was filmed, and one of the people stopped in traffic so as not to ruin the scene was Barbra Streisand, who apparently spent time hanging out with Faye Dunaway between takes.
According to Christina Crawford, there were several scenes in which the script had to make alterations for real-life events. For example, for the famous rose bush cutting scene Christina said that those manic occasions happened periodically due to no real cause. The producers wanted to use the scenes but had to write in that it was brought on by Joan being fired by MGM Executive Louis B. Mayer. Also in reference to Joan helping the maid scrub the floor, Christina stated that Joan never cleaned floors that she could remember. Joan would make Christina or Christopher clean the floors while she supervised.
Faye Dunaway did not always categorically refuse to talk about the film: in a late 1980s French interview, she stated that she felt the Crawford role was a sort of "Kabuki theatre performance" and later, when asked by James Lipton in her "Inside the Actor's Studio" episode, she reluctantly admitted Mommie Dearest (1981) was an authentic "exploitation film."
A scene was filmed in which Joan and young Christina build a campfire on the beach and Joan initiates a soul-baring conversation with the girl. Faye Dunaway mentions this in her autobiography, and reveals that it was one of the first scenes they were required to shoot. She felt the scene was crucial because it made an attempt to explain some of Crawford's erratic behavior, and she was dismayed that the production required them to shoot such an emotional scene before any of the necessary history had been established between the actors. She took it as a warning sign that the production's priorities were in the wrong place, and ultimately the scene was cut from the film altogether.
The central role of Joan Crawford was originally to have been played by Anne Bancroft, who left the project once the screenplay was completed. Bancroft quit over creative differences about the script prior to principal photography, claiming to Producer Frank Yablans that the scripts were "hatchet jobs" on screen legend Joan Crawford. The part had been previously turned down by many actresses in Hollywood for being "too unsympathetic".
In a second, far less successful book about her tumultuous life, Christina Crawford writes that Faye Dunaway "auditioned" for the part of Joan by dressing herself up as the movie star, and showing up unannounced on Director Frank Perry's doorstep. Christina also says that when the film opened, she hesitantly went to see it one afternoon by herself at a theater in Los Angeles. She was the only one in the audience.
In the documentary Mommie Dearest: Joan Lives On (2006), interviewees recalled the story about where the infamous "No wire hangers" line came from. Apparently, Joan Crawford's mother worked at a dry cleaner during a very difficult time in Crawford's life growing up, thus triggering bad memories. Crawford's thought process: Why have them in her home if she could afford better?
To prepare for her role as screen legend Joan Crawford, actress Faye Dunaway watched her movies, researched her life and read many books and biographies on and about the actress and the period of her career.
Publicity for this picture reported that actress Faye Dunaway once said of her role in this movie: "It was my most difficult screen role in terms of the time I am in the film and the emotional heights demanded by the part".
The character of Carol Ann is a compilation of Joan's longtime secretaries and nannies. The actress who played the nanny "Carol Ann" kept a journal during filming Mommie Dearest and later published it as a tell-all book called 'The Mommie Dearest Diary' by Rutanya Alda. Rutanya alleges that Frank Perry repeatedly tells the make-up team to make her appear plainer and less attractive because he fears that Faye Dunaway will have her fired if she is at all pretty. Dunaway is portrayed as a prima donna, who insists on controlling the camera blocking to almost always face her. Indeed, many scenes show most female characters from behind, side profile or out of focus, except for Faye.
According to Rutanya Alda, Irene Sharaff walked off the set in tears, because she was so "horrified by some of Faye's outfit decisions." When Sharaff left, an assistant mocked Faye Dunaway's constant screaming of, "Clear the set!"
Cult-film director John Waters recorded a commentary track for the film's DVD release. Ironically, Waters states immediately in his commentary that he feels the film's reputation as being a cult film is undeserved, and proceeds to give a mostly straight analysis of the picture as a drama.
In an interview with Gay City News, Rutanya Alda recounted her uncomfortable experience with Faye Dunaway. "When Jocelyn Brando (who played the journalist) saw me go down after Faye hit me, she said, 'I can't afford to be injured, I just spent six months in the hospital,'" Alda recalled. "Initially, Frank wanted both me and Jocelyn to pull her off Diana (Scarwid, who played Christina), but she saw Faye was out of control and said, 'No way.' We did maybe ten takes, and Frank had to deal with it, because Faye wasn't gonna change what she was doing. I got knocked down maybe twice-she hit me hard in the chest."
According to Vanity Fair, Christina Crawford's memoir, on which the film was based, outraged those closest to Joan. Even Cathy Crawford, Christina's sister, noted: "It makes me very sad. Every time Mommie's name is mentioned, that book is mentioned. I don't want to give it any more publicity than it's already had. Even when people say or write good things about my mother, that book gets linked to her name. It's so unfair."
The picture is only briefly mentioned in Faye Dunaway's auto-biography. Dunaway maintains that she wished Frank Perry had had more experience to assess when it was necessary to rein in their performances. The movie is a cult classic with a reputation for over-acting by Dunaway.
Reportedly, when the Paramount Pictures studio changed their marketing plan for the movie from drama to comedy, Frank Yablans sued, as he had made the picture as a serious drama. Yablans said that the new advertisements (which emphasized the wire hanger scene with bold headlines reading 'No wire hangers...ever' and 'The biggest mother of them all'), were "obscene, vulgar, offensive, salacious, and embodied a racial slur of the poorest taste". Yablans claimed five million dollars in damages, and demanded the ads be withdrawn.
For the "Hollywood Royalty" DVD of this film, Faye Dunaway was the only top-billed cast member who declined to participate in "special feature" materials, thus continuing her decades long refusal to ever discuss her Razzie-winning performance in this cult classic.
Shortly after production began, when millions of dollars had already been invested in hiring cast and crew, building sets and creating costumes for the film, Faye Dunaway suddenly threatened to back out unless her then-husband, Terry O'Neill, was given a producing credit. Following tense and protracted negotiations, Dunaway got her way, and O'Neill received an executive producer credit - as "Terence O'Neill" - despite not doing any producing.
The lobby cards issued for the film contain scenes from several sequences that were deleted from the final cut of the film, including: - Joan driving through the MGM lot in her car, apparently just before she visits Louis B. Mayer and finds out she's fired. - Joan talking to young Christina on the beach. - Adult Christina talking to Joan while wearing the same dress she wears to the awards ceremony at the film's conclusion.
In a 1981 interview with Roger Ebert, Frank Yablans took the famed critic on a tour of the film's set, which he said cost 480,000 dollars. During the visit, he made sure to single out one particular piece of furniture. "This chair was originally built as a throne chair for Cecil B. DeMille for The Ten Commandments (1956)," he told Ebert. "What did we do? We painted it white. It looks perfect in this situation."
Paramount was the one major studio for which the real Joan Crawford never made a film, although she did come very close. In early 1953, Crawford was in talks to star as Sylvia Merril in a Irving Asher production of Lisbon (1956), an international spy tale adapted from a short story by Martin Rackin. But the film was shelved when Asher and Crawford weren't sure about the strength of the script, despite several rewrites. Joan Crawford and director Nicholas Ray (who had been hired to direct 'Lisbon') both went on to film the 1954 western Johnny Guitar (1954) for Republic Pictures. It was Republic that ended up making a film version of Lisbon (1956) with Maureen O'Hara playing Sylvia Merril.
Rutanya Alda ("Carol Ann") met Joan Crawford years earlier, when Rutanya was a photo double for Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby. In a scene that was edited out of the final film, Guy and Rosemary attend The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Theatre and Joan Crawford and Van Johnson play themselves, attending the play. Rutanya was amazed that Joan Crawford introduced herself to her on set.
Critically derided upon release, one of the more colorful reviews came from Variety who said "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all".
Despite the immense criticism about Mommie Dearest, now and then, the movie was very popular when it was broadcast on television, and then as a VHS rental. Meanwhile, John Waters, on the DVD Commentary track, said that, with a couple of infamous scenes aside, it's a very entertaining motion picture.
Several members of the cast and crew had previous personal experiences with Joan Crawford. Costume designer Irene Sharaff, make-up artist Charles H. Schram and Vivienne Walker all worked with Crawford during the peak of her film career, while actress Rutanya Alda, who plays Carol Ann, had seen Crawford on the set of Johnny Guitar (1954), which was filmed close to Alda's childhood home. Years later, Crawford introduced herself to Alda on the set of Rosemary's Baby (1968), where Alda was working as a stand-in for Mia Farrow and Crawford was filming a cameo that was later cut from the film. As well as this, as a child, first assistant director Michael Daves actually attended the lavish birthday party for Christina Crawford that is depicted in the film.
In the John Waters DVD Commentary, he mostly defends the film, but has to admit that several scenes go way overboard. Like when Joan cuts her daughter's hair off, he says, at first pointing out how much Faye Dunaway resembles Joan Crawford: "It looks like a Joan Crawford movie." Followed by, "It looks like a William Castle movie... That's the problem."